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Reading Shakespeare's Plays

Before you start to read Shakespeare's plays, you will want to take a look at some of the language uses that might stand in your way of understanding the script.  In his book, Unlocking Shakespeare's Language, Randal Robinson breaks the language barriers into three main categories:  Shakespeare's Unusual Arrangements of Words, Shakespeare's Troublesome Omissions & Words Not Quite Our Own.  This guide will briefly cover each of these areas, but you will also want to ask your teacher to get a copy of this great resource by following the link above.

Unusual Word Arrangements
Many of my students have asked me if people really spoke the way they do in Shakespeare's plays.  The answer is no.  Shakespeare wrote the way he did for poetic and dramatic purposes.  There are many reasons why he did this--to create a specific poetic rhythm, to emphasize a certain word, to give a character a specific speech pattern, etc.  Let's take a look at a great example from Robinson's Unlocking Shakespeare's Language.

I ate the sandwich.
I the sandwich ate.
Ate the sandwich I.
Ate I the sandwich.
The sandwich I ate.
The sandwich ate I.

Robinson shows us that these four words can create six unique sentences which carry the same meaning.  When you are reading Shakespeare's plays, look for this type of unusual word arrangement.  Locate the subject, verb, and the object of the sentence.  Notice that the object of the sentence is often placed at the beginning (the sandwich) in front of the verb (ate) and subject (I).  Rearrange the words in the order that makes the most sense to you (I ate the sandwich).  This will be one of your first steps in making sense of Shakespeare's language.

Shakespeare Asks . . .


What wast the form of English
I used when writing my plays?

Old English
Middle English
Early Modern English
Modern English
Shakespeare asks . . .


We speak in prose (language without metrical structure).  Shakespeare wrote both prose and verse (poetry).  Much of the language discussion we will have in this guide revolves around Shakespeare's poetry.  So, it is important that you understand the following terms:

Blank Verse:  unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Iambic Pentameter:  five beats of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables; ten syllables per line.

'So fair / and foul / a day / I have / not seen'

'The course / of true / love nev/er did / run smooth'

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